Thursday, January 3, 2013

Best Reads of 2012

These are the top ten books I read in 2012 (regardless of when they were published).

#1 - The Orphan Master's Son - Adam Johnson
The Orphan Master's Son(2012, novel/audiobook)

What I said about it in August: "It's a great book...  [but] all of the narrative juice is used up before the novel actually closes (about 90% of the way through to be vaguely specific). But I was transported, tempted and entertained. Definitely one of the best books I've consumed this year."

Turns out, time conceals all flaws when it comes to this novel. Certainly the most memorable novel I consumed this year. As always, Numbers 1 through 3 could come in any order depending on my mood.

#2 - True History of the Kelly Gang - Peter Carey
True History of the Kelly Gang(2000, novel/audiobook)

What I said about it in October: "Yeah, this was a good book... The audiobook took a bit of getting used to as the narrator didn't go for much in the way of differentiating characters' voices in dialogue (and decided part way through to make Mary Hearn sound more Irish)...

"But there are advantages of receiving a text like THotKG aurally. Carey's Ned Kelly writes in a comma-less tidal wave, and with the audiobook you have no choice but to keep up with him. Carey's way of breaking up the narrative by describing the various packages that Kelly's account comes in (the conceit is that this true history is archived somewhere in Melbourne) is pretty canny. In fact, the whole thing is canny."

#3 - I Got His Blood on Me - Lawrence Patchett
2012, short stories, NZ)

I never blogged about my own thoughts on this collection, but here's what I said in a Dom Post column from September: "These days, most historical fiction being published in this country features a woman in a flowing dress on the cover, but Patchett's short stories mine a different vein. There are shipwrecks, marathon swimmers and battles between sealers and religious nuts. Costume dress is kept to a minimum.
I Got His Blood on Me: Frontier Stories
"The present and the past are allowed to inhabit the same frame, whether it's the ghost of Maud Pember Reeves pestering a council clerk or a musket-wielding time-traveller appearing on the side of State Highway 1. Our past has never felt so exciting or accessible."

And 1: Here's my interview with Lawrence from June.

#4 - The Marriage Plot - Jeffrey Eugenides
The Marriage Plot(2012, novel/audiobook)

What I said about it in June: "I found myself popping my iPod on while doing the dishes or watering the garden, not just during my workday commute, which is always a good sign for my level of engagement with a book.

"For the first time in a while, the American Contemporary Social Realist Novel felt like a genre, and I don’t mean that disparagingly: it felt snug and comforting. Here was the entire spectrum of middle class white college kids in the early eighties (so not much of a spectrum, really) talking about Victorian novelists and literary theory and religion (at other times, the narrator quotes long passages from books on these topics)."

#5 - State of Wonder - Anne Patchett
State of Wonder(2011, novel/audiobook)

What I said about it in May: "My current audiobook is Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, read by Hope Davis. Sadly, Ms Davis struggles with the Australian accent and the first third of the novel features two Australian characters. This small quibble aside, I’m enjoying the book..."

I didn't blog about this novel once I'd finished it, but it was one of the more memorable novels I read this year. Strong plot, clean, unobtrusive writing, with something unnerving running just below the surface.

#6 - Straight through from London: The Antipodes and Bounty Islands, New Zealand - Rowley Taylor
Straight Through from London(2007, non-fiction, NZ)

Two years running my #6 spot has been taken by a non-fiction book that I came across while researching THE NOVEL (aka The Mannequin Makers). Taylor's book contains a great mix of general history, stunning colour photos and detailed appendices for those with a special interest in these islands. In particular, his log of every visit by vessels of the NZ Steamer Service was super helpful. 

#7 - The Bengal Engine's Mango Afterglow - Geoff Cochrane
The Bengal Engine's Mango Afterglow(2012, poetry, NZ)

I promised a couple of times this year to write about Cochrane's latest collection (and James Brown's, which I brought and read at the same time). But I got busy finishing my novel and, truthfully, I didn't respond to The Bengal Engine's Mango Afterglow as strongly as I had the last few of Cochrane's collections. Several tropes felt recycled. Basho, Li Po and Tu Fu were back. The worksheets were now "Pinksheets" and we got eight of them.

So much of the power of 2010's The Worm in the Tequila derived from the wry twinning of poet's recent diagnosis with diabetes and his alcoholism. He'd also moved from Berhampore to Miramar. For a poet of footpaths and footnotes, this is like a whole new canvas - but it is unfair to expect your favourite poet to get a new disease or colonise a new patch of town with each new collection. 

Returning to The Bengal Engine a few months later -- and returning again after that and to Cochrane's other collections (Hypnic Jerks was on particularly high rotation for some reason) -- I got over my initial ambivalence and could see these poems for what they were: photographs from a poet who chooses sound over sight, punctuation over pixels.

#8 - Far from the Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
(1874, novel/audiobook)
Far from the Madding Crowd

The oldest entry on this years list by a wide margin, here's what I had to say about it in October:  "I felt conditioned to enjoy Far From the Madding Crowd [because I'd recently read The Marriage Plot]. And I did like it.

"I like the way it starts with a very static description of 'Farmer Oak'. I like the way he's had his shot at Bathsheba Everdene early on and the scene where young George drives his sheep off the cliff, reducing him to a shepherd once more.

"...I liked Hardy's authorly theorising about men and women. The sort of things you could never really get away with in a book today. The sort of things quotation pages lap up, but has the habit of jolting the reader from the story..."

#9 - Love and Hydrogen - Jim Shepard
(2004, short stories)
Love and Hydrogen: New and Selected Stories

This book features 22 short stories, a number of which appeared in Shepard’s first collection, Batting Against Castro. I really enjoyed Love and Hydrogen, but I’m just gonna come right out and say it: the book is too long...

"Love and Hydrogen may have too many stories, but it surely contains greatness. If not for ‘Ajax [is All About Attack]’, ‘Batting Against Castro’ might be the best sports short story I’ve read. ‘Love and Hydrogen’ might be the best ‘two men in love’ short story I’ve read (and it just so happens to take place on board the Hindenberg).

"The book is lousy with superlative, or near-superlative, stories. And for that reason, I can overlook the overstuffing, the lack of whole-ness, and proclaim it an awesome book."

#10 - How to be a Woman - Caitlin Moran
(2011, non-fiction)
How to be a Woman
The number ten spot this year was tightly contested with a number of novels (Arthur and George, The Keep, The Human Factor, The Art of Fielding and The Forrests) and non-fiction books (The Tipping Point, The Botany of Desire, A Place of My Own, Keith Richards' Life) that were good but not great reads. 

So my number ten spot goes to Moran's blend of autobiography and modern manifesto. 

Here's what I said about it in November: "I placed a reserve on this book months ago at the library and then when it was finally my time, I was reading it with the eyes of a father-to-be... [What I didn't say: we found out after I'd placed the reserve that we were going to have a girl, so the book took on greater importance].

"Caitlin Moran LIKES TO SHOUT IN CAPS. A LOT. But it works for her. When she wants to, she can turn a great, surprising phrase. Por ejemplo: "I feel embarrassed that she is now having to deal with our secret blackness. This is private. The admin of my soul."

"Interesting. Moderately enlightening. Always entertaining."


Target Practice
In my 2011 end of year reading summary, I noted the following goals for my reading in 2012:
  • "Read 12 poetry collections (one a month)
    • How'd I do? Only four new collections (not counting re-reading old collections). *Sad trumpet.* "Must try harder next year." 
  • "Listen to 12 audiobooks, including at least four non-fiction books."
    • How'd I do? Well, back in May I'd already reached the 12 and 4 mark. All up, I listened to 29 audiobooks, seven of which were non-fiction. A big healthy TICK.
  • "Read at least twenty New Zealand books." 
    • How'd I do? I only read 16. 80%. That's okay. Maybe next year. 
  • "Read at least six Australian books of fiction." 
    • How'd I do? Only three. *Sad trumpet*. There's always next year.
  • "Read at least six books I already own"
    • How'd I do? Depends if you count books I re-read. Pretty much everything I read this year I bought or got out of the library. So I'm giving myself a fail.
2012 was the first year I've ever consumed more audiobooks than physical books (29/26). I blogged about this a couple of times (early starts/tired eyes; most of my reading time being on the way to and from work). I think my Top 10 list this year is a bit middle brow, which is partly due to the fact only so many books I want to read are available as audiobooks. I'm gearing up to listen to Roberto Bolano's 2666 next year, but at 39 hours and 15 minutes, it's kinda daunting.

Some other stats:

What sort of books did I read? Here's a helpful camembert:

My response: More poetry needed. Novels can go down a bit, surely.

New or old-timey? Here's how the age of these books breaks down:

My response: More poetry needed. Novels can go down a bit, surely.

Where did they all come from? Here's how my year looked, based on the country of origin of the authors: 

My response: A bit vanilla. Again, audiobook availability may have something to do with this. Next year, I'll try and read books from at least 12 different countries, including 3 countries I've not read anything from before.

What were your best books of 2012? What country must I read in 2013? Lemme know!


Toni Wi said...

Japan! haha. great post, very interesting to compare your list to mine. sort of inspiring too! must read more poetry and non-fiction. new goal :)

Anonymous said...

My stats: Total 78 books, 3 short story collections, 12 non-fiction, 17 NZ authors, 10 Australian, 3 translated novels.
Top Ten:
Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
John Saturnall’s Feast, Lawrence Norfolk
The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
A House for Mr Biswas, V.S. Naipaul
As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
Pure, Andrew Miller
Wise Children, Angela Carter
The Forrests, Emily Perkins
The Cleansing of Mohammed, Chris McCourt
The Hungry Heart: Journeys with Colenso, Peter Wells


Craig Cliff said...

Thanks Toni and Cathy for your suggestions.

Toni, from your list (, Zoo City sounds amazing and I'll hunt it down.

Cathy, I'm jealous of the number of Aussie's you knocked off in 2012. Something to aim for this year!